The Popes and Education in the 20th Century

Peter A. Kwasniewski

During her 2,000 years of history, the Catholic Church has been intimately involved in every type of educational endeavor known to Western man, from the ancient schools of rhetoric to the great universities of the High Middle Ages, from humble rudiments taught at grammar schools to lofty flights of reason and imagination in the arts and sciences. The Successor of St. Peter has a special reason to be attentive to the state of education in the flock he shepherds and to guide and encourage it in every way possible. In fact, we find among the popes, particularly those of the last millennium, an impressive connection with schools at various levels—naturally, first and foremost, schools of formation for the clergy, but also, as time goes on, schools for religious and for the laity. Pope John Paul II fittingly reminded the world in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) that the university was born from the heart of the Church and that the Church is still her best ally in the delicate, decisive, and inescapable work of educating the whole person, above all with respect to man’s capacity to know and love God, on which his very dignity is based.
If we consider the popes of our own time, from Leo XIII (1878–1903) onwards, we see several major themes consistently present in their speeches and writings. First and foremost, the Church belongs in higher education. As Leo XIII wrote to the Archbishop of Baltimore in 1887: “It has always been the glory of the Pastors of the Church, but above all, of the Supreme Pontiffs, constantly to promote the acquisition of a knowledge worthy of its name, and carefully to watch over the teaching—especially theological and philosophical—imparted, so that it may be in keeping with the principles of faith. This union between the teaching of revelation and that of reason constitutes an indestructible bulwark of the faith.” The Church has always inspired the best kind of education, the most well-rounded and the most profoundly searching, because, as the same Pope observed in 1897, “divine faith is not only in no way hostile to culture, but rather is the crown and climax of culture.” Indeed, a defining characteristic of Catholic education is its drive toward synthesis, a unified vision of God and the world, with the drama of redemption at its center. “Directly or indirectly, all studies have some connection with religion,” wrote Venerable Pius XII (1939–1958) in 1950. “University does not mean simply an overlaying of curricula which are extraneous to one another, but indicates rather a synthesis of all the subjects of learning. … To actuate this synthesis from its center up to the main key that unlocks the whole edifice is the task of a Catholic university.” Accordingly, the curriculum of a genuinely Catholic institution “assign[s] in its zeal for truth the correct place in its programs to natural sciences and metaphysics, to mind and heart, to past and present, to reason and revelation,” as the same pontiff explained in 1939. On the negative side, as this Pope observed in 1952, “the university would fulfill its mission badly were it to abandon itself to pluralism or to a superficial eclecticism.”
Another important papal theme is service of the common good. Education, at its best, forms Catholics who love the common good of their nation and their Church, are equipped with the knowledge and zeal to work towards that goal, and are willing to make sacrifices for it. Of course, Catholic education cannot form such “apostles” unless it remains abidingly true to itself and to its own identity. As Pope Pius XII declared in 1949: “In accordance with absolute fidelity to Christian principles, which are the whole reason for existence of the Catholic University, it must, today more than ever, watch the aims for which it arose, and with persistent purpose of mind keep faith with the engagement solemnly undertaken to provide the nation’s social body with leaders and lovers of science and learning who will honor the faith and the Church.” Almost fifty years ago, in September 1958, the same pontiff observed: “The Christian school will justify its existence in so far as its teachers—clerics or laymen, religious or secular—succeed in forming staunch Christians”—words that give rise to sober reflection in view of the number of historically Catholic institutions that now justify their existence for reasons extrinsic or even contrary to the apostolic intentions of their founders and benefactors, whose great longing was that minds be illuminated with the light of Christ, souls nourished with the Bread of Life, hearts inflamed with the fire of God’s love.
To all the popes of modern times, therefore, the rapid secularization of schools at all levels, whether by government coercion or by traitorous choice, has been a cause of immense sorrow and a target of their impassioned protests. The popes, especially Pius XI (1922–1939) in his masterful encyclical Divini Illius Magistri (1929), repeatedly and effectively refute the unnatural claims of “naturalism”—the view, now universally accepted in spite of its deplorable record of real-life failure, that children and young adults should be educated without any reference to God, their immortal souls, and the virtues necessary for salvation, and without the aid of the Church’s ministry. Consider these forceful words of Pius XII from 1951: “Education which does not bother about being moral and religious fails in its greatest and better part, in that it neglects the noblest faculties of man, deprives itself of the most efficacious and vital energies, and ends up by ‘diseducating,’ mixing up uncertainties and errors with truth, vice with virtue, and evil with good.” The threat of secularism is a threat not only to the Church’s own institutions of learning but also to the common good of modern nations as they slide more and more rapidly into the moral chaos of techno-barbarism.
In his well-known Apostolic Constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae, John Paul II, a university professor in his younger days, drew extensively upon an ancient and living tradition to offer the Church a compelling vision of what Catholic higher education must be in our times as well as a body of directives and provisions to which institutions must be held accountable to guarantee their fidelity. It seems, then, beautifully providential that at the start of this new millennium the Lord has given His Church another “pope of education” in the person of Joseph Ratzinger, a scholar, theologian, and author of enormous stature. There is seldom an audience, address, or letter in which the Pope does not mention or discuss the subject of education. The famous Regensburg lecture, the speeches given at the Lateran and Gregorian Universities, and the address intended for La Sapienza in Rome are all exemplary of Pope Benedict XVI’s intellectual penetration into the relationship of faith and reason, his sound judgment regarding the modern situation, his deep academic learning made humble by the love of God, and, in a period of doubt and confusion, the strong and steady leadership he exercises for the benefit of the People of God. Let us hope and pray that his example and teaching—a powerful summons to sanity and sanctity—will be heard and heeded by our universities and other institutes of learning.

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